The Unknown Woman

In Italian with English subtitles. Starring Xenia Rappoport, Claudia Gerini, and Clara Dossena. In Italian with English subtitles. Rated 18A. Opens Friday, May 23, at the Cinemark Tinseltown

One of the unexpected byproducts of the economically disastrous Soviet collapse was the massive export of mainly unwitting prostitutes from formerly socialist republics. This theme has been touched upon in countless films and TV shows over the past decade, but rarely as poignantly as in Giuseppe Tornatore’s latest feature, The Unknown Woman.

Irena (Xenia Rappoport) wants to work as a maid for a well-to-do Northern Italian family. A Ukrainian-born immigrant with a suitcase full of cash, this former sex-trade victim lives with a brutal economy that would embarrass the average bum. Still, there’s obviously method in her parsimony, and what she’ll do to get where and what she wants knows no bounds. If extreme ruthlessness is required to place her next to young Tea (Clara Dossena) after her heart goes out to her, then so be it. Basically, there’s only a small flame of humanity still flickering in that heart, and she will do literally anything to keep it from being blown out.

How his protagonist got this way is something that director and cowriter Tornatore reveals to us in a stream of flashbacks that are edited like posttraumatic-stress revelations. Quite simply, Irena’s memories are so horrific we can’t hold even her cruellest actions against her. She’s the kind of character a contemporary Balzac might have created.

Although The Unknown Woman is not without its flaws (Irena would have been even more credible if her Italian was less perfect), there’s no denying that it packs a powerful punch. In the past, Tornatore has sometimes failed to find the proper balance between the overly sentimental and the pointlessly ugly.

This time out, however, he’s right on the money.